Longhi ,Uffizi



on Verbal Absolution and Commuted Penances





Volume 2, Sacraments of Reconciliation Nicholas Halligan, O.P.








By the will and institution of Christ absolution to be valid must be oral, even in the greatest necessity [1] Although not of faith, it is theologically certain and the perpetual practice. Thus, concretely, all expressions of absolution other than in words must be considered invalid.[2] The words need not be heard by the penitent (or even by the minister), but they must be of themselves audible. Absolution cannot be given in writing or by a sign or a nod; in this it differs from the form of matrimony.

[1] Cf. Florence, Denz.-Schön. 1323; Trent, 1673.

[2] Clement VIII, S. Off. 20, iun. 1602; 7 iun. 1603; Denz.-Schön. 1994-1995; Paul V, S. Off. 14 iul. 1605. Cf. St. Thomas, Opusc. 22, c. 2.









Sacramental absolution must be imparted to a penitent who is personally present, and his accusation of sins must be made to a confessor who is present. The absolution cannot be given vocally nor the sense of the words preserved unless the penitent is present, i.e., one who according to the common and ordinary manner of speaking and acting can hear the words or to whom the confessor can speak. To hold that confession can be made to one who is absent or that absolution can be imparted by letter or messenger to one who is absent has been condemned (Clement VIII, Paul V, op.cit). A serious cause will permit a penitent to write out his sins and even to send them to the confessor, but he must be present to accuse himself of the sins so written and to receive absolution validly. Absolution can be given to the unconscious whose desire for it can be presumed.

The penitent must be physically or at least morally present. Since physical presence cannot be always had in human affairs, by divine institution that presence is required and suffices by which a penitent, according to the common manner of judging of men, is considered to be truly present. Moral presence is that within which men still can and are accustomed to speak among themselves, even though in a loud voice. There is no need for the penitent actually to hear or to understand the words, since it is not the penitent whose action the words must indicate but God. Often the words must be said in a low voice lest bystanders hear. The penitent's presence is required so that the words may have a reasonable meaning. It is not necessary that there be no barrier at all between confessor and penitent, e.g., a grille. However, if a confessor and penitent are in different non-communicating rooms, the absolution is rendered [p.18] at least doubtful; it may be imparted only in a case of necessity and conditionally.

It is generally held that within about twenty paces distance sufficient presence is had for the words of absolution to fall upon the penitent. Greater distance, e.g., fifty to one hundred paces may be admitted, if there is a moral union of the persons, e.g., in a street, military field, stadium, courtyard, etc. The opinion that absolution can be given in any case at any distance as long as the penitent is seen or sensibly perceived is untenable, since it does not seem to fulfill the nature of a judgment. An absolution beyond about twenty paces or in some dubious presence is doubtful.





The penitent can and must be absolved as often as he can be perceived by some sense, at least confusedly, even if due to some accidental hindrance he is not perceived. If he is more than twenty to thirty paces away the absolution is to be conditional. Thus a priest must absolve a person who is seen to fall from a roof, into a river, to drown; also the dying who cannot be approached for some reason, e.g., fire, wreckage, locked door, contagion, time to cover the distance, etc.

A common absolution may be imparted, under the conditions already noted, to many persons in a group, even though the members in the rear are more than twenty to thirty paces distant. When because of the great distance these latter cannot be considered to be morally present, they cannot be validly absolved. The group should then be divided and the single parts absolved to insure validity.

If the penitent, thinking he has been absolved, should leave before receiving absolution, then:if he is near the confessional, he can be absolved without recalling him, even though he may have mingled with others, as long as it is prudently judged he is still morally present;

if not, he must be recalled for absolution if this can be conveniently done and he can conveniently return; if this cannot be done and he is certainly morally present, although not perceived, he must be absolved; [p.19] if he is neither present nor will return later, nothing can be done but recommend him to God; if he later returns to the same confessor for confession, he should be warned to be sorry for all his sins and absolved; if the approach is not for confession but for some other reason, he must be warned of the defect of absolution. However, in practice the admonition usually may be omitted, since this is generally a source of uneasiness to penitents and very difficult for the confessor due to the danger of scandal or of infamy to him. The penitent does not suffer spiritual damage, since these sins are also indirectly remitted in the following confession.

Absolution given over the telephone is certainly unlawful and probably invalid. It is not the human voice but an artificially produced sound, and the persons are commonly considered to be absent from each other. This manner of absolving may be used conditionally in extreme necessity. Absolution through a speaking tube is certainly unlawful but probably valid. Although the human voice is heard, the moral presence is doubtful. Absolution by telegraph, radio, or television is certainly unlawful and invalid.






All the sacraments are to be conferred absolutely and only conditionally when a peculiar reason or cause demands or permits. A condition 'does not affect the sense of the form but the will of the minister. The sacraments work their effect when they can; it is not in the power of the minister to suspend it for a future time. Tradition and the practice of the Church has always held that absolution under a future condition is invalid. Absolution under a condition of the present or past is certainly valid and for a just and sufficient grave cause lawful. Absolution may not be given conditionally unless the reason is well founded and grave necessity urges; thus, it must be imparted as often as, if not given, a notable spiritual damage would threaten the penitent, and if given absolutely, nullity or irreverence of the sacrament is risked. This is exemplified in the following cases of doubt:

a) of the confessor that he absolved the penitent who is in mortal sin;

b) of the dispositions of or the [p.20] matter submitted by a penitent in danger of death, or whether the penitent is alive or has understood the confessor;

c) of the return of the penitent if absolution is not given;

d) of the attainment of the use of reason;

e) of the sufficiency of the matter confessed by a devout person from whom certain matter cannot be prudently obtained.

It is not necessary but rather generally inadvisable for the confessor to inform the penitent that he has been absolved conditionally. When the penitent is considered in good faith, his later Communion will not be sacrilegious. When conditional absolution is given in the case of serious sins, especially in view of the doubtful dispositions of the penitent, the latter must not receive Communion, as this risks the danger of sacrilege. The confessor, at least, cannot recommend Communion but rather, when asked, leave it to the conscience of the penitent.

An oral or vocal expression of the condition is not necessary; it may be merely mentally expressed. In order to assure the placing of the condition, it is advisable to express it orally in words. 






When a penitent has already received absolution but then remembers a forgotten sin or a gravely changing circumstance or a notably diverse number of sins already confessed, the confessor must repeat the absolution. Otherwise, the penitent must confess this as necessary material in the next confession. The penitent must have contrition for this new material, unless his previously elicited contrition virtually perseveres. In practice, the confessor will ask the penitent if he is sorry for these sins also and confirm the penance given or add to it, as he prudently judges. When a slight sin is confessed after absolution, a new absolution may be imparted, but it is not required.




of the
CHURCH: VOL. II (Can 870-2414)
John A. Abbo  & Jerome D. Hannan, (2nd rev.ed., Herder, 1960).


885-886. The absolution. Although the prayers added by the Church to the form of absolution are not necessary for the absolution itself, in the absence of a justifying reason they are not to be omitted. [48] It is not obligatory to give the introductory blessing before the penitent begins his confession.[49]  As to the prayers contained in the Roman Ritual, since canon 885 permits their omission for a justifying reason, not requiring a grave reason, it seems that the obligation to say them is not a grave one.[50] Of course, if there is evidence that the penitent has incurred a censure interfering with the reception of a sacrament, the confessor should have the intention of absolving him from that censure; indeed, if the presence of the censure were certain, the confessor would sin gravely if he did not have that intention.[51] The raising of the hand in absolution and the making of the sign of the cross are not required under pain of sin.[52]

Absolution granted through a messenger or by mail is invalid.[53] Absolution given by telephone is certainly unlawful and at least probably invalid.[54] [p.15]

886. If the confessor can have no doubt regarding the dispositions of the penitent and if the latter seeks absolution, ab-solution cannot be denied or be deferred.[55] A quasi-contract binds the confessor in justice; this is the common teaching. His obligation is a grave one, if the denial of absolution causes the penitent to remain in the state of mortal sin. Of course, the consent of the penitent remits the obligation. The obligation binds the confessor once he has moral certainty that the penitent is properly disposed. Indeed, if the confessor finds the penitent indisposed, he does not seem justified in dismissing him at once, but rather bound by a grave obligation to stimulate in him the necessary state of mind.[56]

887. Satisfaction. The confessor shall impose a salutary and appropriate penance based on the kind and the number of sins and on the character of the penitent; this the penitent must will. ingly accept and perform in person.[57] The commonly held doctrine maintains that it is a grave sin not to impose a penance for grave sins remitted for the first time by the absolution of the confessor. Whether there is a grave obligation in other cases is not certain.[58] A proportionate penance is required, but not as necessary to the sacrament, since the measure of the penance looks rather to the satisfaction of divine justice and the welfare of the penitent. Therefore a confessor is often justified in imposing a penance that is not too burdensome even when grave sins not yet remitted have been confessed, e.g., when the penitent is dying or [p.16] when he is otherwise unfitted to assume a heavy spiritual burden. Public penance cannot be imposed except in fulfillment of the obligation arising from the natural law of repairing scandal caused by the penitent's sin.[59]

If the penitent thinks the penance unreasonable, he may leave without absolution and confess to another confessor or he may accept the penance and then seek a commutation of it from an-other confessor, for the common doctrine holds that commutation may be justified. The confessor assuming to grant this commutation needs at least a confused idea of the sins for which the penance was imposed and he can grant it only in the administration of the sacrament. A confessor can commute the penance imposed by himself, without a repetition of the confession.[60]

[48] Can. 885. As to the form itself, St. Alphonsus held that even the invocation of the Blessed Trinity at the end of it was required under pain of venial sin; Theologia moralis, VI, no. 430, III. All agree that it would be a grave sin to omit the words "a peccatis tuis," since it is not certain that they are not essential, though the more common view holds that they are not. St. Alphonsus, ibid., II; Cappello, op. cit., II, pars I, no. 77, 3.

[49] It is not found in the Rituale Romanum.

[50] Prior to the Code, St. Alphonsus stated that authors commonly held that there was no precept to recite them and he noted that the Council of Trent (sess. XIV, de poenitentia, c.3; Schroeder, Council of Trent, pp. 90 f.) had said that they were commendably added (laudabiliter adiunguntur) by the Church; op. cit., VI, no. 430, III.

[51] Coronata, De sacramentis, I, no. 363; Cappello, De sacramentis, II, pars I, no. 79.

[52] Coronata, loc. cit.; Cappello, ibid., no. 80, 8.

[53] Cf. Clement VIII, June 20, 1602, prop. damn.; Fontes, no. 716; Denzinger-Bannwart-Umberg, Enchiridion, no. 1088.

[54] Cf. Coronata, ibid., no. 365; Cappello, ibid., no. 95. When asked whether the telephone could be used in an extreme emergency, the Sacred Penitentiary stated : "Nihil est respondendum"; July 1, 1884, apud Ballerini-Palmieri, Opus theologicum morale, V, no. 25. Since the validity of absolution by telephone is highly dubious, it can be imparted in this manner only in a case of extreme necessity and then only conditionally; cf. Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), I11, 255.

[55] Can. 886. This abrogates the view of St. Alphonsus permitting postponement of absolution for the penitent's amendment. Op. cit., VI, no. 462.

[56] Cf. Leo XII, const. Caritate Christi, Dec. 25, 1825; Bullarii Romani Continuatio (14 vols., Prati, 1845-56), XIII, 351.

[57] Can. 887. Cf. 11 Plen. Council of Baltimore, Acta, nos. 288 f.

[58] Cf. Coronata, op. cit., I, no. 371; Prümmer, op. cit., III, no. 395. 15

[59] Cf. Coronata, op. cit., I, no. 371.

[60] Cf. Coronata, ibid., nos. 372, 374.






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